International Peer Group
International Peer Group mentor Andrew Phou (center), a senior in psychology & social behavior and film & media studies, meets at Mesa Field with freshmen from around the globe. Jocelyn Lee / UC Irvine

What does UC Irvine have in common with Disneyland and South Coast Plaza? All are popular Orange County destinations for visitors from around the globe. UC Irvine offers students from Beijing to Sao Paulo a top-notch education in a vibrant coastal location. In turn, domestic students gain critical exposure to global cultures.

In September, Student Life & Leadership and the Division of Undergraduate Education hosted 608 new Anteaters at the International Student Orientation – more than double the number in 2012. Between 2008 and 2012, UC Irvine’s total foreign student population jumped from 1,416 to 2,167. They represent 76 countries, with China, South Korea and India topping the list.

For Juhyun “Jacey” Song of South Korea, it was UC Irvine or a public research university in the Pacific Northwest. She selected UC Irvine for its sunny Southern California location and the School of Social Ecology’s interdisciplinary research focus.

“The weather is great, and I hear that Irvine is a very safe city,” the freshman in psychology says while lounging on the Mesa Court lawn with new friends from South Korea, China and Vietnam during the International Student Orientation.

Zihan “Jessica” Ding, a biological sciences student from China, says she’s looking forward to exercising at the Anteater Recreation Center.

“Did you know that Kobe Bryant practices at the ARC?” responds senior Kathleen Chu, a California native who helps coordinate UC Irvine’s International Peer Group program.

Shouts of “Really?” and “No way!” erupt from the group.

Administered by the Division of Undergraduate Education, IPG aids students from abroad in adapting to campus life and dealing with issues such as homesickness and culture shock. Its leaders organize academic workshops and social events. Mentors help international students understand UC Irvine’s classroom culture by reviewing their essays, attending instructors’ office hours with them and linking mentees to educational resources on campus.

Student Life & Leadership’s International Center offers such assistance as a free “Life in the U.S.” workshop, which addresses American pop culture, making American friends and traveling to regional vacation spots.

“Students may be prepared to succeed academically,” says IPG director Zahra Ahmed. “Our goal is to make sure they thrive in and out of the classroom at UC Irvine.”

That support is crucial to freshman Mohamed Altamimi, who sorely misses his friends and family in the United Arab Emirates.

He decided on UC Irvine after attending a summer program here and falling in love with the campus and area. He previously had considered universities in the Midwest.

“People here go to the beach and outdoor concerts year-round,” Altamimi marvels. “In my country, it’s usually very hot, and most of our free time is spent indoors at the mall.”

The design of UC Irvine’s campus has simplified the transition, he says: “It’s easy to know where all your classes are located because everything is arranged around a circle.”

Altamimi keeps busy studying and going to events and activities with other international students to stave off the loneliness that comes with being so far away from one’s home and native culture.

“I try not to think about it too much,” he says. “I spend a lot of time on Skype with my family too.”

The number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges was a record 764,495 in 2011, propelled primarily by the continuing influx from China and a recent surge from Saudi Arabia, according to a report by the nonprofit Institute of International Education.

Paulina Torres, a junior in business economics at UC Irvine and an IPG coordinator, says she enjoys seeing the foreign students, at first shy and timid, blossom into full self-expression.

“They are so formal and polite in the beginning, and it’s fun to see them loosen up,” she says.

Torres observes that exposure to international students can be helpful to domestic classmates preparing to study abroad.

“It’s a great way to learn about other cultures and make connections before you go,” she says. “That way, you know what to expect when you travel to, say, China or the Middle East.”

And, of course, it can expand the world view of American students to interact with foreign peers who bring different customs and perspectives to UC Irvine.

“There’s so much cultural diversity in Southern California,” Torres says, “but you don’t always meet people who live in other countries.”